Water testing
A water sample is tested by city workers at Orchard Ridge Elementary School in Madison on Monday, April 24, 2006, part of routine tests that are done twice weekly at sites such as schools and wells. CRAIG SCHREINER/State Journal

Unions aren't the only thing on the political front these days.

Republicans have introduced bills in each legislative house that would repeal a Department of Natural Resources rule that requires municipal governments to disinfect drinking water. The rule went into effect on Dec. 1 of last year, and it affects 12 percent of the state's municipal water supply systems. The other 88 percent of municipalities already disinfect their water.

"When I heard about this law being proposed, I thought, ‘You might as well legislate that the sun rises in the west," says Mark Borchardt, a leading infectious groundwater disease specialist and a staff member with the Environmental Protection Agency Advisory Board. He has done groundbreaking studies that showed that about 13 percent of acute gastro-intestinal illnesses in Wisconsin municipalities that don't disinfect their water supplies are tied to dirty drinking water.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, in the Senate, and Rep. Erik Severson, R-Osceola, in the Assembly.

Severson says he heard about the DNR rule on the campaign trail.

"A lot of it is expense," he says. "When people in an area are not complaining about the drinking water, the water is good. The taxpayers there are saying ‘Hey, we can't afford to pay for this.'"

State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, a member of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, dubbed the measure the "Poison Our Drinking Water Act."

"Of course it makes no sense, when Wisconsin had the largest drinking water outbreak in modern history," he says.

In 1993, more than 400,000 people were sickened and at least 104 died in Milwaukee when the protozoa cryptosporidium infected the water supply. That outbreak, however, happened despite the fact that the city was disinfecting its water. It has since increased the level of disinfectants used on the water supply, as well as stepping up water testing, according to DNR officials.

Six Republicans and one Democrat, Jim Holperin of Conover, signed onto the bill in the Senate, and 13 Republicans and one Independent, Bob Ziegelbauer of Manitowoc, endorsed it in the Assembly.

In a letter seeking co-sponsorship from colleagues, Harsdorf and Severson complain that the DNR rule goes beyond federal mandates.

"This mandate imposes a significant cost on municipalities," they wrote. "One community cited a price tag of $2.9 million for complying with this mandate, which is several times larger than the community's annual budget."

Severson says that municipality is the northwest Wisconsin community of Balsam Lake, which has three wells. Village Trustee Eugene D'Agostino says the village received the high estimate because the village water supply also has high levels of manganese, and the most common disinfectant for water systems, chlorine, exacerbates the discoloration. D'Agostino says the village has also had lower estimates. At this point, he says, the village doesn't know how much it would cost to comply with the rule, which gives water utilities a deadline of Dec. 1, 2013.

D'Agostino says the engineering firm that gave the $2.9 million estimate didn't tell the Village Board why the cost was so high.

Lee Boushon, the DNR water supply section chief, says the $2.9 million price tag probably involves installing filter systems to remove the iron and manganese, the most expensive alternative.

He says the issue can be handled chemically at a much lower cost.

For most municipalities, Boushon says, the cost of disinfecting water supplies with chlorine would be about $10,000 per well. Some communities, like Balsam Lake in the northwestern part of the state, use multiple wells, which would push the price tag up.

The presence of microbial pathogens in water supplies is the result of faulty sewer systems, septic tanks or other issues related to human waste disposal. Larger municipalities in the state already disinfect drinking water.

Boushon says there are currently about 66 municipal systems that don't. The state requires all public water suppliers to have systems in place that can pump disinfectants in case of an outbreak, but that doesn't mean they have permanent systems in place.

Ken Hackett, public works director for the village of Frederic, a northwestern Wisconsin village of 5,000, says in an emergency that the municipality can use its fluoride pumps. He adds that to comply with the DNR rule, the village would have to buy new pumps and chemical tanks. But he says he hasn't looked into the cost.

We have four wells, so it would add up," he says. "I've been here for 30 years and we've only had one bad sample that I can remember in all that time, so we hope to heck we don't have to" disinfect.

The 66 municipalities that don't disinfect comprise about 220,000 people. They range from Rice Lake, which serves 33,000 people, to an East Troy water district that serves 40. Near Madison, which uses chlorine, municipalities that don't disinfect include Dane, Mineral Point, and Spring Green.

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Recent federal and state studies showing the prevalence of pathogens from human waste in groundwater have surprised experts. In 2007, studies even turned up viruses in the giant aquifer that supplies water for the city of Madison, which is 200 feet below ground and insulated by a thick layer of shale rock.

In 2008 Borchardt, now a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, did a study for Marshfield Clinic, the state's largest private medical research institute. He found that some communities were drinking groundwater that was the sanitary equivalent of surface water, which the federal government requires to be disinfected. In the $2.3 million study, he monitored 14 water systems that don't disinfect. In half he installed ultraviolet disinfection systems, using the other half as a control group. Then he tracked incidents of diarrhea and vomiting in the communities.

"What you can see is the decrease in illness as we added the UV disinfection," he says.

Borchardt's study provided much of the scientific basis for the DNR rule requiring disinfection.

Severson, a physician, says he never heard of the study.

"Before I can comment on it, I'd want to see the paper," he says.

Borchardt says the law to roll back the disinfection rule flies in the face of years of research.

"I think the data is overwhelming," he says. "Why this law is being proposed without even looking at the scientific work, I don't understand."

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, when developing its 2006 Groundwater Rule, which mandates monitoring of water supplies and corrective action when microbial pathogens are detected, considered a rule to require public water systems to disinfect, but backed off, letting states decide the issue.

Borchardt says the upper Midwest, because of its strong reliance on groundwater, is a prime example of a place where mandatory disinfection makes sense.

"This will be a huge step backwards," he says of the proposal to roll back the DNR rule. "It's hard to believe, actually."